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Technology Transfer Diplomacy and the Challenge of Our Times


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered to the Multilateral Action on Sensitive Technology (MAST) plenary meeting on September 15, 2020.  They may also be found here, on on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good day, everyone, and welcome to the 2020 plenary meeting of the Multilateral Action on Sensitive Technologies (MAST) process. This is the third year that MAST has been in existence, and it’s a pleasure to see this forum thriving despite the continuing global pandemic and the need to hold such meetings only in a “virtual” manner.

The need for something like MAST is more apparent than ever. Indeed, so also is the need for ongoing improvements in bilateral and multilateral coordination of all sorts among the world’s free and democratic nations as we together confront pervasive and systematic technology transfer threats from authoritarian regimes that seek to acquire sophisticated technology abroad and to use it in support of revisionist agendas that are gravely destabilizing the geopolitical arena.

There was, of course, a time, earlier in the post-Cold War era, when free democracies did not take these threats very seriously. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal since then. Unfortunately, we have had to. Not since the late the 19th Century, if ever, has the world seen the sort of determined and systematic effort to acquire and repurpose foreign technology and know-how in service of disruptive and destabilizing global political and military ambition that we face today – and even that loose historical parallel is deeply disturbing in its implications.

On top of this, we face growing dangers to the privacy and integrity of information belonging to the citizens of each of our countries, and belonging to commercial, industrial, and financial entities throughout our societies and economies. All of these struggles, moreover, are taking place in the context of a technological environment characterized by rapid – one might even say bewildering – rates of change, and the constant emergence and evolution of technologies with enormous potential to catalyze disruption, for good or for ill.

Such a juxtaposition of challenges is without historical precedent – and, with authoritarian challengers quite openly seeking to occupy the commanding heights of mid-21st Century technological innovation in service of their revisionist geopolitical ambitions, there is every reason to be alarmed. This also, however, gives us every reason to come together to find collaborative solutions.

What we are all engaged in is thus part of a commendable, if overdue, response to these threats. MAST represents one facet of a new and rapidly expanding arena of cooperative engagement that one might describe as “technology security diplomacy,” aimed at building what I have described over the last couple of years as “coalitions of caution.” It is time for us all to work to bring our friends and partners together to “compare experiences and improve coordination on common technology-transfer threats intimately linked to our common security in a geopolitically challenging world.”

This kind of engagement creates invaluable opportunities. It creates chances to build and to share awareness of evolving threats, to share perspectives and compare notes on “best practices” with which to respond to technology-transfer challenges, to develop and improve cooperative synergies, to explore mutually supportive capacity building enterprises, and to form closer partnerships in mitigating the threats presented by authoritarian influence and manipulation of economic relationships. Taking advantage of the potential that such diplomacy offers will be essential to our collective success in finding answers to these problems.

The MAST process is clearly growing in its maturity and its influence. What started merely as a very promising idea is now an established forum in which likeminded countries routinely compare experiences and improve coordination on common technology-transfer challenges. We will hear about your experiences during our plenary discussions over the next three days, and we look forward to sharing our own.

All your governments should be congratulated for coming together for this third annual MAST plenary conference. We certainly face huge challenges, but your participation in this event – and the work we’ve all been doing together – helps point the way to answers that will make us all more secure, more prosperous, and more free in the years and decades ahead.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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